By Allen White
Today’s guest is Father Charlie Holt, the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and School in Lake Mary, FL. He is also the President of Bible Study Media, a non-profit Christian publisher. He is an instructor with the Institute for Christian Studies and serves as a collaborative partner with Pathways to Home, a ministry aiding homeless families in Central Florida. He and his wife, Brooke, have three children.
1. When I first met you a decade ago, your church launched a ridiculous number of groups based on your size for the 40 Days of Purpose. How did that come about? What happened?
Like many other churches, St. Peter’s participated in Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose. At the time we had about 260 people attending on a weekend. After watching the training videos by Rick Warren, our leadership team took Pastor Warren’s inspirational challenge to think exponentially. We added a “0” to our goal of having 10 small groups. So, we set a goal to have 100 small groups and 1,000 people participate. I think the truth is that we didn’t know how big of a goal we had set. We would need 50% of our member households to open up their homes and host a group!
The Lord blessed us abundantly, even though we did not reach the goal. What did happen is that 70 small groups were started with 700 participants–that is 300% of our average weekend attendance participating in the campaign! Over 65% of the people who did that campaign with us were not members of our church. We added 30 new families to our membership that year, and our operating budget grew by $100,000.
The 40 Days of Purpose taught me the evangelistic power of a small group campaign.
2. As an Episcopal priest, what is the uniqueness of launching groups in a liturgical church?
One of the great things about the liturgical church is the emphasis on alignment with the church year. We follow a seasonal approach that walks the entire congregation through the life of Christ. This means that there are certain seasons that really lend themselves to a small group emphasis. The 40-day period of Lent or the Great 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are wonderful times to call the entire church to consider the Gospel in community. A liturgical church is united by common prayer and common practices. This culture of community lends itself to church-wide focus. The challenge is that there are not many small group resources written with the liturgical church in mind.
3. Lake Mary, Florida, where you serve is a rather affluent community. How do you gain and keep your congregation’s attention on small groups with so many distractions in their lives?
This is a challenge of our day for Christianity in general. School, sports, and entertainment dominate the families’ focus and time. I believe the key first step is that I personally as a pastor have to model an alternative way of life for the people of the Lord. I need to live life in a small group so I can authentically experience the challenge and speak of it with my people.
Another strategy is to expose people to the small group concept in shorter bursts and smaller steps. Introduce people to the blessing of life lived in small group community without overwhelming them. A six-week study is a small enough commitment that a busy person could say yes. But it is long enough to break some patterns. The prayer and hope is that the blessings of life in community will outweigh the curses caused by over-commitment and over-scheduling. Always have a second step to offer for those who catch on.
4. You are the author of the Christian Life Trilogy. Why did you create this series for the Lenten, Easter, and Pentecost seasons?
The Christian Life Trilogy comes from a longing and desire to see the heart of the church renewed around the heart of God at the heart of the Christian year. As I said in an earlier answer, I have found it difficult to find solid biblical material that aligns with the patterns of the Christian liturgical calendar. Lent, Easter, and Pentecost tell the greatest story ever! We need some materials that take us through the core message of that journey with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension purposefully, prayerfully, and reflectively. I pray that the individuals and congregations that use the Christian Life Trilogy materials will find themselves centered on the things of first importance—Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and raised from the dead. Let us die with Him, that we too may be raised to new life and filled with all of the fullness of God in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
5. Now that many churches of various sizes (including megachurches) and denominations have participated in the Christian Life Trilogy, what have you learned about launching groups in a church-wide campaign?
In the first year of its publication, the Trilogy had over 50 congregations from various denominations and contexts participate with over 4,000 participants. My observation is that the several congregations that really saw tremendous fruit were the ones that took the time to plan with prayer and intention.
The most impactful Church-wide campaigns take several months in advance of their launch to slowly, prayerfully, and methodically build a momentum toward a movement of God. A strong lay leadership team and the support of the church council is fundamental. It takes time to effectively clear the calendar of meetings and other agenda items without alienating your key leaders. If the senior pastor and a strong leadership team are focused with singular purpose on the Gospel and do a good job casting the vision to the people of God, the Lord will bless the effort and multiply His kingdom. God the Father loves it when His people focus on His Son!
5.5 Out of The Crucified Life, The Resurrected Life, and The Spirit-filled Life, which is your favorite?
I love the Spirit-Filled Life! It was the most fun to write and amazing to see implemented in my own congregation. I had a parishioner tell me that they thought the Crucified Life would be a tough sell. After all who really wants to pick up their cross? I think that is true. However, you can’t get to the Spirit-Filled Life until you have died with Christ. The pathway to full fellowship with God is through the Cross, Resurrection, and Holy Spirit.
By Allen White
For churches who observe Lent, the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, it’s a common practice to deny oneself of something during the Lent. Now, I’ve heard of people giving up things as frivolous as watermelon during Lent, which isn’t in season anyway. But, others take this serious, and deny themselves something of importance to them. Why not give up your small group for Lent?
Now, while my proposition may seem counter-intuitive, this is what I mean — Ask everyone in the group to take a break for the six or so weeks of Lent to help start other small groups. Whether your church is doing a specific Lenten campaign like The Crucified Life or another alignment series, this is a great way for group members to unselfishly give up their group to help start a new group. Of course, they are welcome to return to their original group after the series is finished. Spoiler Alert: 80 percent who start a group this way will stay with the group they helped to start. Don’t let offer that detail or else no one will do it!
Giving up a small group for Lent is not just good for helping start new groups, but also will breathe new life into established groups whose numbers have decreased or have become ingrown. After all, joining an established groups is a lot like getting married and suddenly having in-laws. By sending the group members out during Lent, the group leader can fill the group with new people. Then, when any group members come back to the group, they have essentially a new group.
Whether your church observes Lent or not, giving up your group for Lent will be a healthy experience for both new and established group members. You could even call it a small group vacation.